Betany Coffland Interview: Following a Dream Beyond the Rainbow

“I’m always impressed by how much work goes into putting an opera together and how much physical and emotional energy the singers invest in their voice lessons, coachings, outreach programs and rehearsals in order to make the magic that we finally see happen on stage.  They don’t do it for the money, and that is why the program at Opera San José and its network of supporters are so beneficial to budding professionals.”
Joseph Coffland
Mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland and her husband Joe make time in their busy schedules to go for hikes and spend time outdoors.

Talented singers like mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland frequently come from families that value music in all its forms. “Everyone in my family sings,” Coffland says, “though not professionally. Mom was an amateur opera singer and often sang famous soprano arias around the house.” Betany and her siblings sometimes entertained the family, performing as a quartet.

Born in a small Kansas town, Betany’s family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when she was four. At fifteen, she auditioned for Brigadoon and got the role of Fiona. “My parents began to participate in shows with me, since I was too young to drive myself to rehearsals.” As a teenager, Coffland also participated in the first year of the Missouri Fine Arts Academy.  Each high school could nominate one person, and she was selected from her school.  For 100 students, it was three weeks concentrating on song, dance, mask-making and other subjects. “It was the defining moment that convinced me I wanted a career as a singer,” Coffland said. Two summers ago she went back to the Academy, now internationally respected, and lectured on what the students there can expect as they move into their chosen careers.

Coffland’s undergraduate studies were at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, an institution she says is very protective of their singers.  She auditioned and was accepted for their Graduate School Opera Workshop Program, where she sang short pieces and learned how to develop her characters.  She then completed a Masters Degree at Julliard.  “It is a very demanding school,” she says, “I developed a backbone.” In addition to singing and acting classes, her conservatory training involved intensive language study.  Singers must take German, Italian and French, and they also take diction classes. After graduation, Betany moved to Italy to perfect her Italian, and she later lived in Prague so she could learn Czech. “At Julliard, we also had to take English diction classes.  English is the hardest language to sing in.”

Coffland, who keeps track of opportunities to sing and had seen the Opera San José website, was living with her husband in Boise, Idaho, when she met Jason and Michele Detwiler, former OSJ residents. The company was looking for a mezzo-soprano, and luckily for everyone, the Detwilers convinced her to audition. Now a fourth-year resident with Opera San José, she is a George and Susan Crow Fellow and a John M. Heineke and Catherine R. Montfort Fellow.

Coffland will sing the role of the Woman in OSJ’s upcoming production of La voix humaine. Typically, she likes non-standard musical works the best. Her favorite opera is Little Women by Mark Adamo, and she would love to sing the role of Jo in it.  She also likes Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy and The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky. Her favorite singer is the now deceased recitalist Jan DeGaetani, perhaps because she too likes to do recitals.  “I also like to sing chamber music and art songs, and plan to do some of both after OSJ,” she said. “One of my favorite roles was Dorabella, in Così fan tutte.  It was all about being in an ensemble, and I like comic roles.”  All the roles she has sung for OSJ have been new ones for her.

Coffland believes that authentic, real characters are what make an opera great. When she sees a performance, she searches for honesty and wants to see a person’s soul on stage.  She watches to see how the story and the music come together. “A good singer has excellent technique, but that person must also be able to communicate with the audience.”  And a good artist is the product of research. He or she must learn about the characters and how they relate and must ask, “Who has done this role before?  How can I make it different?” In preparation for her role as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, for example, she read a translation of the play by Pierre Beaumarchais, upon which the opera was based.

She and her husband are considering settling permanently in the Bay Area after her residency, though she will continue auditioning for roles in New York and elsewhere. Her husband supports her career – “He promised to do so in our wedding vows.”

OSJ patron Carolle J. Carter was a professor emerita from Menlo College, and is a retired lecturer in history, San José State University.


Artist Interview: Jasmina Halimic

Jasmina Halimic and Jan Schmidek

Jasmina Halimic and Fellowship sponsor Jan Schmidek at the Santana Row summer concert, July 2011.

Jasmina Halimic is a young woman who is realizing the American dream, in part with help from Opera San José. An American citizen born in Bosnia Herzegovina, she was exposed to music from early childhood. “My mother says I sang before I talked,” she says, and before the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, she went to the government music school, a full immersion program which included piano and voice training. One day she overheard a mezzo-soprano a few years older than herself singing Schubert. Jasmina, in awe, decided she would work hard so that someday she would be able to sing just as spectacularly.

When she was fourteen, her family was forced to seek refuge in Croatia in order to escape the political tensions and ethnic cleansing occurring in Bosnia. After a year, family in America helped them immigrate to Pittsburgh, PA. Jasmina enrolled in high school, and her cousin alerted the principal that she could sing. As luck would have it, the choir class was preparing its spring show; she auditioned for a solo role, and from then on she was the class soloist. With her teacher’s encouragement, Jasmina continued to study piano and theory, and also began taking operatic singing lessons.

Following high school, she enrolled at Duquesne University to study music performance. Jasmina traveled to Rome to learn Italian, and also studied language and diction in France and Germany. After graduation, she worked as an administrative assistant and taught Italian at the local community college. To continue developing her voice, she explains, “my singing needed improving, and I began the long and difficult search for the best suited voice teacher.” In New York City, she found a mentor with whom she continues to study, former Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Patricia McCaffrey. In addition to her vocal training, she pursued a master’s degree at Indiana University, and in 2003 Tito Capobianco cast her as Valencienne in the IU Opera Theater production of The Merry Widow. “His production is legendary, and that comic role was a breakthrough for me, confidence-wise.”

Halimic applied to Opera San José in 2010, and she was cast in the role of Magda for the company’s premiere of La rondine. Her performance gained her an artist residency, and last season she sang the roles of Mimì in La bohème, and the title role in Anna Karenina, a modern American opera, which she says “made me a better musician and challenged all my talents.” This season, she will sing Elettra in Idomeneo, Nedda in Pagliacci, Violetta in La traviata, and Marguerite in Faust.

Halimic appreciates the uniqueness of Opera San José’s resident ensemble, and that “it allows people like me with big voices and limited opportunities to get experience. The group is collegial and has good chemistry and heart. It’s like we are all on the same team.” She loves the supportive San José audience because it encourages the singers to give their best on stage.

Opera San José’s extensive outreach program is another excellent opportunity for the singers to share their talents. “Opera is a serious art, not just pretty sounds, but it’s also entertainment. I love entertaining my audience and sharing the gift of music,” Halimic says. “A beautiful voice isn’t enough. Excellent technique is necessary if one is to become a fine singer; this means perfect command and control over the vocal instrument, in order to be true to the music and the composer’s intent.” Two singers who inspire Halimic with their technique are Luciano Pavarotti, and soprano Virginia Zeani, who has been a major influence in her life.

Halimic loves every role, and strives to bring honesty to each one. To prepare, she reads the story and works out how she can make the role her own. For Anna Karenina, she watched several movie adaptations in addition to reading the Tolstoy novel. In looking towards this season’s opening production of Idomeneo, she visualizes her role of Elettra as a kind of ‘queen of the night.’ Opera San José’s collaboration with the Packard Humanities Institute is “an attempt to do a truly period version of the opera–no other group has done it this way. Frescoes are being studied for the sets and costumes.” This production of Idomeneo will feature experts from all fields: artists from Ballet San Jose will perform the dance scenes, and well-known Mozart specialist, George Cleve, will conduct.
An award winning opera singer who is equally at home in recitals and on the concert stage, Jasmina Halimic epitomizes the kind of talented, dedicated artists that Opera San José seeks, cultivates, and encourages.

OSJ Patron Carolle J. Carter is a professor emerita from Menlo College, and a retired lecturer in history, San José State University.